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Canada's spy agency plans to offer 'significant' help assessing climate change threat

The Canadian flag flies over the Columbia Icefields' Athabasca Glacier in Jasper National Park, on May 7, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

OTTAWA - A senior Canadian Security Intelligence Service official predicts the spy agency will make a "significant contribution" to understanding the threats posed by a warming planet as climate change accelerates.

Tricia Geddes, deputy director for policy at CSIS, told an intelligence conference Wednesday that global warming will have a profound effect on Canadians, including aspects of national security.

CSIS must continue to anticipate "the next threat" and understand it in order to support other government players, said Geddes, citing possible ripples from climate shifts, such as the mass migration of people.

"I think it's important that we are going to be in that space," she told a Canadian Association for Security and Intelligence Studies symposium.

Geddes stressed that CSIS analysis of climate change would be anchored in its mandate of gathering information about threats to the security of Canada, including violent extremism, sabotage, foreign interference and espionage. CSIS is also permitted to collect foreign intelligence to support the ministers of defence and foreign affairs.

Ironically, perhaps, environmental and human rights activists have alleged that CSIS stepped over the line in recent years in collecting information about peaceful anti-petroleum groups aiming to protect the planet by protesting pipeline plans.

Geddes' comments came as world leaders gathered this week in Scotland to devise plans to curb global greenhouse-gas emissions.

Daniel Jean, a former national security adviser to the prime minister, told the intelligence symposium that officials are already seeing environmental effects on security, such as conflicts fuelled by water scarcity in Africa.

Canada faces security questions prompted by climate change in the North that is making once-frozen waters more navigable, said Jean, a senior fellow with the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa.

"I think that our national security community has started to pay attention to these things. But there's a difference between paying attention and devoting more than just a running brief," he said.

"We're going to have to devote a little bit more attention to this in the whole dimension of what the world needs to do to deal with the warming of the planet.

"So the national security folks have to keep an eye on that. The rest of the public policy community has a tremendous weight on their shoulders as well."

Mass migration will be "a huge issue" flowing from climate change, meaning the Canada Border Services Agency will be prominent in collecting intelligence to understand the geographic patterns and risks, said Leah West, an assistant professor at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University.

The cyberspies of the Communications Security Establishment, who gather foreign intelligence from an array of sources, could play a supporting role, she suggested.

In addition, Canada's military is likely to be called upon more often, she said.

"Who do we call out for floods, fires and pandemics? It's the Canadian Armed Forces, right? And so the military is going to be stretched to respond to those missions. It may need to reorient itself in its organizational structure to handle those missions better."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 3, 2021.

News from © The Canadian Press, 2021
The Canadian Press

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